Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes

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Writing Stages

9


The writing process has several stages through which a writer moves, occasionally moving backward. The stages are prewriting (or warm-up exercises), invention and organization, style, writing the first draft, revising, rewriting, and proofreading. Two common writing assignments are the experiential essay and the research paper. Although there are many variations of these assignments, and certainly other kinds of written work as well, these two assignments will be used to illustrate the information competencies in the rest of this website. This process is very similar to the steps in preparing an oral presentation.

 

Prewriting

As discussed earlier, brainstorming, clustering or mapping, freewriting, and other techniques can be a good warm-up before writing begins.

 

Invention

Invention is the part of writing that most overlaps with research. You critically evaluate your information and decide what you can use. Among the things you consider is what your purpose is, the truth of the subject matter as you have found it, the expectations and needs of your audience, and the demands of the assignment (e.g., how long must the paper be, whether the paper is to be based on research or on your own thinking, etc.). As you take different courses in the university, you will learn that each discipline (Chemistry, English, History, Business, etc.) has some expectations you will need to meet as well.

Thesis. Aristotle said that a speech has basically two parts: you state a thesis and then you prove it. In general, this corresponds to what you must do in this stage of writing. You must synthesize a thesis. A thesis is a declarative sentence that states the central idea and purpose of your paper. It digests the entire paper into one sentence, and it is far more than "My essay is about drugs." Gary Cronkhite likes to say that the word thesis is an acronym for "THE Speech In a Sentence." In a paper on drugs, your thesis might be:

The damage drug abuse does to our community requires a major governmental program of education, research, and treatment.

This thesis states a persuasive objective and suggests that the topics to follow in the paper will detail three elements of a drug abuse program. The reader is forewarned that the paper is persuasive and will expect the paper to make clear how the education, research, and treatment elements (in that order) will help alleviate the damage to our communities caused by drug abuse.

Development. In terms of your thesis, you must next select and apportion developmental arguments, points, and materials. What information is worth using? How much emphasis do you give to the information in the paper? Development is the expansion of the thesis, identifying the main lines of development, the major arguments proving your point, and so forth. Types of developmental material include definitions, facts, quotations, statistics, comparisons, contrasts, examples, illustrations, and so forth.

Apportionment has to do with how much emphasis do you give to the various pieces of information in your paper. If you write a ten-page paper on how to solve the drug problem, what happens if you use nine pages to present the problem? That would leave you with only one page to present the solution and argue for why it should be adopted.

There is a limit to every writing task, so you can’t write about everything. This means you have to make choices. You may find a great book on allusions to drugs in rock ‘n’ roll music, but you might not have space in the paper to use it. Again, your thesis is terribly important because it is the standard you use in selecting the material for the paper.

 

Organization

Having decided what information you are going to include in your paper, your next step in writing is carefully planning the organization of this material. What goes where and why? There are many ways to organize a paper, varying with a virtually unlimited number of purposes for writing, different audiences, and so forth. The "perfect organization" should grow out of the subject matter, out of what you want to accomplish, out of the nature of your audience and the occasion.

Academic writing often employs an organizational pattern that has been used for over 2000 years. After you’ve read about this pattern below, check it out for yourself. Browse the periodical section of the library, checking out professional journals in a wide range of academic subject areas, from Nursing to Business to History to Literary Criticism to Physics to Psychology to Foreign Languages and every other field. You will find that most of the articles in these journals conform to this traditional pattern. As a side note, it was the pattern Marcus Tullius Cicero recommended as a general form for forensic speeches in court, but it serves political and scientific purposes very well. Note that there are Latin names for the parts of the paper; I use these as a device to help you learn the concepts. All students have learned that essays have introductions, bodies, and conclusions over and over in their education, but strangely their writing frequently does not have sound organization. You will note how the Latin words are very close to the English we use today--that should tell you something important, actually.

I am going to lead you through the parts of the essay. Each part serves an important function for the reader and deserves to have your attention. Note that "the introduction" of an essay is actually three parts, each of which has a function in capturing the reader’s attention and presenting the essential argument. The confirmatio is the "body" of the essay, and of course, it would be the longest part of the essay.

To orient the reader to the thesis or purpose of paper: scholars usually state the thesis directly

"The purpose of this paper is to. . . ."

To "preview" the major developmental parts of the paper: scholars usually state this directly

"First, the history of the problem will be explored; second, the consequences. . . ."

Another organizational feature you need to plan for is transitions between the parts of the paper and the various ideas. A few things to keep in mind:

Writers use a great many devices at this stage to plan the organization of their essays, books, reports, papers, and so on. You need to develop a method that works for you. While some people actually write successfully without any form of written plan, you will find preparing a written plan is very helpful. One of the most common and useful devices for preparing a written plan is an outline. Outlines are so useful, in fact, that virtually all word processing programs have an outline function built-in. An outline enables you to keep track of each of the points you intend to include and to see the relationships among the points.

In Microsoft Word, you simply select Outline from the View command menu at the top of the screen. Having created an outline plan for your work, you switch from the outline mode to View / Page Layout and begin writing the text of your paper with each idea in the planning process. When you print your finished work, the outline itself does not print. Another neat feature to keep in mind if you do it this way is that you can export your outline into PowerPoint to prepare visuals for a class report.

It seems to me that most university students already the mechanics of putting together an outline, so I won't say much about it here. There are some standard rules: use a consistent set of symbols [for example: I, A, 1, a, (1), and (a)] for the successive levels of subordination); show the logical relationship of the points through indentation; and put only one point for each symbol. The two types of outlines are topic outlines and sentence outlines. Over the years of looking at thousands of student outlines, it seems to me that sentence outlines are the most useful because you end up with a clearer idea of what you want to say. While outlines are not routinely submitted with university papers to professors, they are nevertheless an important tool.

One thing I don't like about outlines: Most chapters in textbooks on making outlines are restricted to the "body" of the papers or speeches, but your goal in planning at this point in the process is to plan for the whole paper, including the "introduction" and the "conclusion." For this reason, I often recommend to my students that they build the outline using the organization concepts above: exordium, narratio, partitio, etc. If you address each of these parts well, you will fulfill important functions necessary if your writing is to clearly communicate to your reader and audience. There are many approaches to organizing our communication messages and different kinds of writing have different conventions and norms. You would not expect an explicit partitio section in a novel or magazine article. Most writing across the many disciplines in a university, however, have a clear expectation for organization that follows Cicero's six categories very closely.

 

Style

Style in writing is putting the ideas into words--what you actually put on the paper. In the writing process, you give some thought to the language before to be used, from the individual words selected, through sentences, through paragraphs, and even through the whole essay or paper. Your language must be clear, appropriate, and impressive.

Clarity is achieved by using the right words in the right way. Your choice of words must convey the ideas clearly so that the reader is not mislead or confused. A dictionary is helpful to give you correct spelling and to give you an idea of the common meaning a word or phrase will probably carry with it, but understand that words have special or technical meanings that often do not find their way into dictionaries. As you study an academic subject area in several courses, your vocabulary will grow and your understanding of the technical meanings of words will grow as well. Words convey attitudes toward the ideas and concepts as well as the denotative meanings, so you should be alert to the emotions, which might be triggered in your reader by the words you select. As you begin your relationship with the university, would you rather be thought of as a student or as a customer?

You must select the right words and spell them correctly. You should keep a dictionary near you when you write. Word processing programs on our computers have a "spell check" function to help you discover and correct misspellings, so use them! Note, however, that if you write this sentence, "They're is a map their using to get to place there going," the computer's spell checking is not going to catch your confusion of there, their, and they're. You need to not only use the dictionary to check the spelling of new words and words you are unsure of, but you also need to learn which words you commonly misspell because you learning them wrong.

Your sentences need to be well constructed. Aristotle wrote that to have good style, you had to know Greek well. By that he meant people couldn't communicate unless they can use the language competently. The reason writing teachers spend so much time on grammar isn't to arbitrarily make people learn rules; rather, teachers know that sentence problems get in the way of the clarity of the writing. As a university student, you should pay close attention to the kinds of mistakes you make in your writing, make a list of them, and use this list as a checklist in revising and editing your work.

All sentences are variations of a basic form: sentence = noun phrase + verb phrase. With adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and other "parts of speech," sentences may become more complex. With subordinate and dependent clauses, they may become more complex yet. With conjunctions, different sentences may be combined. For example:

Noun phrase Verb phrase Conjunction Noun phrase Verb phrase
The reason writing teachers spend so much time on grammar isn't to arbitrarily make people learn rules; rather, teachers know that sentence problems get in the way of the clarity of the writing.

There are perhaps an infinite number of sentences. For today's writing conventions, most authorities recommend using the active voice ("I hit the ball") rather than passive ("The ball was hit by me,") a variety of sentence forms throughout the writing (length, type of sentence, etc.), and directness (saying what you have to say plainly and straightforwardly).

Several sentence problems are common, so you should be especially alert to these:

I snuck into the movie. I got caught. I got arrested.  
or 
When I snuck into the movie, I got caught. I got arrested.

[By the way, as a side note, my computer's spell checker fixes things automatically without telling me it is doing so and has been changing my "their" to "there." I've had to keep going back to put in the word I want. I didn't have this problem with a typewriter.]

You will find yourself writing sentences that have one or more of these common errors. Over time, many of these problems will correct themselves as you do a lot of listening, talking, reading, and writing in the normal activities of being a university student. If you are alert of these errors and look carefully at your writing in the revision stage, you can improve the quality of your writing a great deal.

Paragraphs are the basic building blocks of virtually any writing. Since Alexander Bain in 1866 introduced paragraph unity as a standard, paragraphs are a fundamental part of teaching composition. His definition of a paragraph serves pretty well even today: "a collection of sentences with unity of purpose" (qtd. in Bizzell and Herzberg 876). Earlier I discussed the importance of a thesis as a central idea governing everything in a paper. In paragraphs, there is a central idea each paragraph is written to convey.

I've always thought of paragraphs as mini-essays or mini-speeches with an introduction, body, and conclusions. In general, the form is

Topic sentence xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx. First point developed xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx. Second point xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx. Third point xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx. Summary and transition xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx.

Each paragraph has to relate in a clear way to the thesis in your paper, and each sentence has to relate to the topic sentence of its paragraph.

There are guidelines for writing paragraphs, but it fundamentally is a creative act. As a writer, you are adapting your ideas to yourself, to your reader, to the subject matter, and to the type of writing you are doing. Here are a few guidelines:

  • There are no exact rules for how long a paragraph should be. Some good paragraphs may be as short as one word, but rarely. As a rule of thumb, paragraphs are usually built with five to eight sentences, not often longer than 10 or 12. On a typed, double-spaced page, there should be 3-5 paragraphs.
  • The topic sentence is much like a thesis sentence in a paper--in a declarative sentence, the central idea of the paragraph is captured and the order of developmental ideas is previewed. A topic sentence is usually at the beginning of a paragraph, but may occasionally be at the end of the paragraph.
  • The developmental sentences should follow a pattern that is a good fit for the central idea and the content. Some useful patterns include chronological, topical, spatial, comparison and contrast, definition-example, enumeration, cause and effect, and problem-solution.

Appropriateness in style is another critical factor. Consider how powerful you are as a communicator. You can talk one way with your friends, another way at work, another way at church, and another at school--your experiences in life have already taught you the need to adapt how you say something to the people you're talked with and to the occasion.

University writing requires the same adaptation. Again, the basic principles have been known for thousands of years. Aristotle taught that we must adapt our communications to ourselves as writers or speakers, to our audience, to our subject matter, and to the occasion of the communication. Simply, we achieve appropriateness in our use of language by using language that fits the occasion, the audience, the subject matter, and ourselves. In university writing, obviously, the occasions have more formality than in casual talk with friends. In the classroom communication and in our writing, we strive for excellence and proficiency. In terms of occasion, we wouldn't expect to find casual slang used. In terms of the audience, our language should reflect a certain degree of competence and knowledge in our readers. In terms of subject matter, our language should be technically correct, consistent with the tone and style of the academic and professional writing and speech, and sincere. Finally, in terms of ourselves, it is proper to reveal your personality in the style, even to use the word "I" to refer to yourself.

Impressiveness in style is what makes your language memorable. How to achieve impressiveness is difficult to say in a few words. Your language, again and again, should be a good fit for what you have to say, to whom you are saying it, the nature of the writing you are doing, and to the image you wish to create for yourself. A simple, straight-forward style is generally recommended for academic writing: if you say what you have to say clearly, the interest and value of your ideas will stand plainly for all to see.

 

Write the first draft

Having carefully planned the organization of the paper, your next task is to write the first draft. Here, of course, a computer is a wonderful asset! Follow your plan. It is a good idea to write in the format you will need to use when you prepare the final copy to be turned in.

It might be observed here that if you have not managed your time well, you will probably be rushed by the assignment's deadline when it is at hand, so much so that you will not have time to revise the first draft. I have had honest discussions with many students about poorly written papers with lots of errors. "Didn't you proofread and revise your paper?" I've asked. And the answer is, "No, I didn't have time. I was late for class and had to turn it in." The lesson, again, is to prepare a plan for doing the research and writing, giving yourself scheduled deadlines for completing each major stage in writing an essay or a university research paper.

 

Revising

Ernest Hemingway once said that good writing was one-tenth inspiration and nine-tenths perspiration. He also said that to be a good writer, you need a "built-in, shockproof crap detector." Actually, he used stronger words than that, but his actual words are usually revised for a popular audience. Both of his statements point to the important of the hard work of revising and rewriting in producing good writing.

Having gotten a first draft written, in many respects the real job of writing begins. You need to read carefully what you have written and critically evaluate it. Revising includes some obvious things like checking the spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but it also entails a thorough review of the quality of your paragraphs, your organization, and your essential argument.

 

Rewriting

Based on your revising, write a new draft of the essay. I have a sign in my office that says, "Rewriting Does Not Mean Retyping." The message, of course, is that substantial rethinking and rewriting can greatly improve your work. Many students seem to think that rewriting is simply correcting spelling errors, but it is far more than that.

 

Proofreading

Proofreading of final draft involves the same factors as revision. There is no excuse for errors in your papers you could have caught by proofreading. Typing errors are still errors. If it is too late to correct your work on the computer, then make changes neatly in ink. Never turn in a paper unless it has been proofread.

If necessary, rewrite again.

Repeat revision and rewriting steps until paper meets your objectives and rhetorical needs. Additional research may been needed if new questions arise and/or you find points that need further development as you revise and rewrite.

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fstlogo.gif (4428 bytes) Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes
John A. Cagle, Ph.D.
Summer Bridge Program
California State University, Fresno

1998 by John A. Cagle, Professor of Communication, California State University, Fresno.

This information competency website was designed by John A. Cagle (Department of Communication) and Ross LaBaugh (Librarian) as part of a grant from the California State University.  It continues to be under construction.